The Waverly Gallery
John Golden Theater, New York City, (212) 239-6200
Elaine May’s performance in her return to Broadway is “both one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see in a Broadway theater, and one of the most profoundly sad,” said Chris Jones in the Chicago Tribune. The role generates the sadness: The 86-year-old writer and improv legend plays a garrulous New York City gallery owner whose mental capacities are quickly deteriorating. But her Gladys Green doesn’t lose her zest for life as she loses her ability to be a pillar of her community and the lifeblood of her family. May, who hadn’t previously opened a show on a Broadway stage since she and Mike Nichols were a team, remains a performer intensely attuned to her scene partners: “She absorbs the energy of other actors like she’s getting a blood transfusion live on stage.” Here, that makes Gladys vulnerable to the growing frustration she causes her daughter (Joan Allen), son-in-law (David Cromer), and grandson (Lucas Hedges).
The Waverly Gallery, a 1999 work by Kenneth Lonergan, is “an affecting play, but not a revelatory one,” said Sara Holdren in NYMag.com. Its quiet poignancy fights early on against the audience’s eagerness to laugh at May’s every quip, and though we get the expected heartbreaking chronicle of Gladys’ decline, we get no deeper revelation. But the play isn’t just about dementia, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Lonergan, who won a 2017 Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, “has always portrayed human communication as an imperfect compromise,” and Gladys embodies how we press ahead anyway. As her children lose patience and an artist, played by Michael Cera, emerges as a valuable ally, the bubbly octogenarian soldiers on, persisting in the belief that she can hold back the ravages of age through talk alone. “That she has clearly already lost this battle makes her no less valiant.”